In its first test of Planetary Defense, NASA’s DART Spacecraft Successfully Strikes the Target Asteroid
The DART spacecraft successfully crashed into a distant supersonic asteroid on Monday
NASA’s DART spacecraft successfully collided with a distant asteroid at supersonic speed on Monday in the world’s first test of a planetary defense system designed to prevent a potential meteorite collision with Earth.
The first human attempt to alter the motion of an asteroid or other celestial body occurred in NASA’s webcast from the Mission Operations Center outside Washington, D.C., 10 months after the launch of DART.
The live broadcast showed images taken by the DART camera where the cube-shaped “collector” car, no larger than a rectangular solar-panel vending machine, smashed into the football-field-sized asteroid Demorphos. At 7:14 pm. EST (2314 GMT) at a distance of 6.8 million miles (11 million km) from Earth.
The $330 million mission, which takes about seven years, is designed to determine if a spacecraft is able to alter an asteroid’s path through sheer kinetic force, pulling it off course enough to keep Earth out of danger.
It will not be known if the experiment was successful after the expected effect has been achieved until more observations of the asteroid are made using ground-based telescopes next month. But NASA officials praised the immediate result of Monday’s test, saying the spacecraft achieved its goal.
“NASA works for the benefit of humanity, so our ultimate mission achievement is to do something like this: a demonstration of technology that, who knows, could save our home one day,” said the NASA deputy administrator. Pam Milroy, a retired astronaut. He said minutes after the collision.
DART, launched by a SpaceX rocket in November 2021, has done most of its flight under the supervision of NASA flight managers, with control handed over to an independent onboard navigation system in the final hours of flight.
The effect of the eye of the target was monitored Monday night in near real-time from the mission operations center at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.
Applause erupted from the control room as second-by-second images of the target asteroid, captured by the onboard DART camera, eventually filled the TV screen of NASA’s live feed just before the signal was lost, confirming that the spacecraft had collided. Dimorphous.
DART’s celestial target was a rectangular “small moon” asteroid about 560 feet (170 meters) in diameter orbiting a five times larger asteroid called Didymos as part of a binary pair of the same name, the Greek word for twin.
Neither object poses a real threat to Earth, and NASA scientists said the DART test could not accidentally create a new hazard.
Dimorphous and Didymus are small compared to the cataclysmic asteroid Chicxulub that struck Earth about 66 million years ago, wiping out about three-quarters of the world’s plant and animal species, including the dinosaurs.
Small asteroids are more common and of more theoretical interest in the short term, which makes Didymos’ pair suitable for testing for their size, according to NASA scientists and planetary defense experts. An asteroid the size of Dimorphos, while incapable of posing a planetary threat, could threaten a large city with a direct hit.
In addition, the relative proximity to Earth and the double composition of the two asteroids make them ideal for the first proof-of-concept DART mission, short for the Double Asteroid Redirection Test.
Robotic suicide mission
The mission represented a rare case where a NASA spacecraft had to crash in order to succeed. DART flew straight into Dimorphos at 15,000 mph (24,000 km/h), creating the force scientists hope will be enough to bring its orbital path closer to the parent asteroid.
APL engineers said the spacecraft most likely crashed, leaving a small crater in the asteroid’s rock-strewn surface.
The DART team said it hopes to shorten the Dimorphos’ orbital path by 10 minutes, but that it would be considered a success by at least 73 seconds, explaining that the exercise is a viable technique for deflecting an asteroid on a collision course with Earth if detected.
An alert to an asteroid millions of miles in advance of it might be enough to deflect it safely.
Previous calculations of the initial location and orbital period of Dimorphos were made over a six-day observation period in July and will be compared to post-impact measurements made in October to determine if and how far the asteroid has moved.
Monday’s test was also monitored by a camera mounted on a small, suitcase-sized spacecraft launched from DART days earlier, as well as by ground-based observatories and the Hubble and Webb space telescopes, but images from those were not immediately available.
DART is the latest of several NASA missions in recent years to explore and interact with asteroids, the primordial rocky remnants of the Solar System’s formation more than 4.5 billion years ago.
Last year, NASA launched a probe on a trip to the Trojan asteroid clusters orbiting near Jupiter, while the OSIRIS-REx portable spacecraft returned to Earth with a sample collected in October 2020 from the asteroid Bennu.
The Moon Dimorphos is one of the smallest astronomical objects to have received a permanent name and is one of the 27,500 known near-Earth asteroids of all sizes tracked by NASA. Although none of them are known to pose a foreseeable danger to humanity, NASA estimates that many asteroids remain undiscovered near Earth.
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